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May 09 2012

Saatchi captures the confusion of contemporary photography

The Saatchi Gallery's messy, sprawling Out of Focus show reveals uncomfortable truths about the current state of photography

I have visited Out of Focus: Photography, the Saatchi Gallery's big contemporary photography show twice now. The second time around, it seemed, if anything, even more of a messy sprawl of styles, strategies and conceptual conceits. The title, Out of Focus, may have been meant ironically, but it takes on a more pointed meaning if you approach the show as a mirror of the fractured world of contemporary practice.

For me, the most coherent thing about the show is William A Ewing's catalogue essay, which begins by stating the obvious – "Photography is a very strange place to be right now, either inside looking out (the producer) or outside looking in (the public)" – then takes us on a humorous journey though the various continents that currently make up "the entire World of Photography": Commercia, Documentaria, Amateuria, Artistica and Artcontemporanea. As Ewing rightly points out, these continents view each other across vast oceans of mutual disdain. Many commercial photographers, for instance, think documentary photographers are hopelessly old-fashioned, while the latter view the former as corporate whores in thrall to the filthy lucre of advertising. Both watch the continent of Amateuria, "a continent so vast it has never been properly mapped, never mind explored", with a mixture of pity and contempt that cannot quite conceal their nervousness.

Artistica too, the realm of conceptualism and fine art, is currently under threat from the Artcontemporanea arrivistes – artists who use photography having once looked down on it as an inferior form. At the Saatchi Gallery, this "disunited nation" jostles for space, though the majority of the world on display comes from the continents of Artistica and Contemporanea. Mikhael Subotzky is the token documentary photographer, for instance, his large format pictures of the grim small town of Beaufort West in South Africa hanging desolately next to the conceptual pranksterism of Broomberg and Chanarin.

This is as political it gets on planet Saatchi, a rarified place where the main thrust is towards the conceptual. There is a lot of photography about photography: Jennifer West's enlarged strips of film of surfers, all gaudy pinks and blues, point towards both psychedelia and Eadweard Muybridge's photographs of movement. Mat Collishaw's big mosaics, made of ceramic, cement, wood and paint, suggest pixellated computer images. John Stezaker's photographic collages bring new life to old photographs found in film and theatre archives, postcards and catalogues.

There is contemporary portraiture and landscape aplenty, too. In the first big room, there are perhaps too many of Katy Grannan's hard painterly studies of old people caught in unforgiving sunlight on the sidewalks of Los Angeles and San Francisco, just as, upstairs, there are too few – just one, in fact – of Elina Brotherus's stark studies of human alienation. In both instances, the power of the work is undercut. It was good to see Hannah Starkey's mixture of street photography and participatory portraiture again, which seemed quite humble in intent (she finds an intriguing spot then asks passers-by to become part of the picture) in comparison to the work around it.

The most crafted work here is Sohei Nishino's series of city dioramas – New York, Tokyo, Paris – made up of thousands of small photographs combined to create a surreal whole. They are mind-boggling in their obsessiveness and recall those wonderful wrong medieval maps of unexplored territories.

Too much of the work on display is too self-consciously arty or referential, and seems already peculiarly dated. More problematic still, there is simply too much on show to make the whole seem in any way formally unified. This is Saatchiland, though, so that was probably never the point.

What we are looking at is a collection parading as an exhibition. It shouts and screams and sometimes whispers for your attention, but you may, like me, find your mind constantly wandering – and wondering at the sheer size and range of it all. It is a glimpse at some of the continents that make up the world of contemporary photography, but the choices often seem random and the staging haphazard. A big mess of a show, then, but one worth seeing – if only to have your confusion about the current state of photography confirmed.

Now see this

At Gallery One and a Half, Laura Pannack is showing her – no pun intended – revealing photographs of Young British Naturists. As always, it is the casual, everyday nature of the nudity that is most surreal.

Martin Parr and Tom Wood's images of the working class on holiday in new Brighton, The Last Resort, were first shown to great acclaim in 1986. This glimpse of an already lost time is now on show at the Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff.

Edgar Martins's series This Is Not a House is at the Wapping Project, Bankside, London. It explores the fallout of the sub-prime mortgage industry in America. It caused considerable controversy when it was revealed that he had "digitally reshaped" some of the photographs. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 11 2012

Damien Hirst: 'I still believe art is more powerful than money'

Damien Hirst has gone from mouthy YBA to global brand over the past 25 years – and become the world's richest living artist on the way. Here he talks about money, mortality and his first retrospective in Britain

Exclusive poster downloads: butterflies shark spin spots

When Damien Hirst was looking though his archive recently, in preparation for his forthcoming retrospective at Tate Modern, he came across some film footage of an interview he did with David Bowie in the Gagosian Gallery in New York in 1996. "I'm sitting on a big ashtray talking bollocks," says Hirst, laughing. "At one point, Bowie says, 'So what about a big Tate gallery show, then?' And I say, 'No way. Museums are for dead artists. I'd never show my work in the Tate. You'd never get me in that place.'"

He grins ruefully and shakes his head. "I was watching it and thinking, 'Jesus Christ, how things change.' Suddenly, I'm 46 and I'm having what they call a mid-career retrospective. It doesn't seem right somehow."

We are seated on a sofa beneath a big blue Francis Bacon in an expansive first-floor room in Science Ltd, Hirst's central London HQ. It is a vast building on several storeys, and it contains more contemporary art than many medium-sized galleries. There are pieces by Jeff Koons, Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas and, of course, several spin and spot paintings, and steel and glass medicine cabinets by the man himself. Hirst's Prada loafers are on the floor in front of us, but his signature tinted glasses are nowhere to be seen. He looks stockier than the last time I saw him, just over two years ago, and a bit quieter, more reflective. "It's mortality, mate," he says. "My eldest boy, Connor, is 16. A few of my friends have died. I'm getting older. I'm not the mad bastard shouting at the world any more."

But you're only 46, I say; it's not as if the reaper has you in his sights. "I know, I know, but it's more that realisation that you're not young any more. I've always thought, 'I don't want to look back. Ever.' I think I was obsessed with the new. That's changed."

A mid-career retrospective will do that, I say, teasingly. "Maybe," he says. "But I think it's more that when you're young, you're invincible, you're immortal – or at least you think you are. The possibilities are limitless, you're inventing the future. Then you get older and suddenly you have a history. It's fixed. You can't change anything. I find that a bit disturbing, to be honest."

The exhibition in question, simply entitled Damien Hirst, will "be a map of my life as an artist, not a greatest hits". It will include most of the greatest hits, though, as well as some not so well-known early work. "There's the painted boxes and boards that I put in Freeze [the groundbreaking show Hirst curated in 1988], from when I wanted to be the new Kurt Schwitters. And there's stuff from my student days at Goldsmiths – gloss-painted frying pans I hung on the wall. Embarrassing stuff like that."

It was Nick Serota, director of Tate, who also insisted that Hirst show the early work, as well as the first piece from every series he has made ever since. "The first spot painting, the first spin painting, the first vitrine, the first medicine cabinet. They're all in there, for better or worse," says Hirst. He then relates an anecdote that illustrates both his cavalier attitude to his work and the weight the work carries. It concerns an early spot painting, executed by Hirst himself, rather than (as is the case with the 1,500-strong series that followed) one of his production team.

"I showed Nick a photo of it and he wanted it in the show. It's all drips and splats. Terrible, really. When I moved down to Devon, I stuck it outside behind a barn. Millicent [Wilner] from Gagosian came down to visit and she was freaking out: 'Why have you put it there? In the rain! Jesus Christ, Damien!' It was like gold because it was me, but, really, it's shit."

Is he happy it's in the show, now? "I am, yes. It tells part of the story of my last 25 years as an artist. It's important on that level. It says that I didn't just arrive on the planet going 'Fuck you' to everybody, which is what a lot of people seem to think."

The "fuck you" work is there in full force, too, though. There's the famous shark in formaldehyde, entitled with typical Hirstian extravagance The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (1991) and described in the catalogue as "one of the most iconic images of late 20th-century art". There's Mother and Child Divided (1993), a bisected cow and calf suspended in four tanks, and the mythical bestiary that is the collection Beautiful Inside My Head Forever (2008), which includes a zebra, a unicorn and a golden calf.

There are pristine steel and glass cabinets full of neatly arranged pills, and evil-looking black paintings made of thousands of flies congealed in paint. There are spin paintings with and without human skulls at their centre, and spot paintings that move between the vibrant and the purely ambient. There are more flies, live ones, hatched from maggots and feeding off a severed cow's head in a vitrine, and butterflies, pinned and painted and pressed on canvas, and a single white dove suspended in mid-flight above a human skull. Life and death, beauty and ugliness, the sacred and the profane; all the big Hirstian statements that have appalled some critics with their supposed obviousness, but have also dragged conceptualism from the margins of the art world into the mainstream.

Outside Tate Modern will stand Hymn (1999), Hirst's monumental take on a child's educational figure, complete with exposed stomach organs. Inside, in the massive Turbine Hall, flanked by security guards, will sit a relatively tiny piece entitled For the Love of God (2007), the most expensive work of art ever created in terms of its materials: a human skull cast in platinum and encased in diamonds. A modern vanitas piece about death and money, but mostly about money.

"Putting the show together," says Hirst, "was like a big 180-degree turn for me. I'm looking back at all this work and trying to make sense of it. Some of it is great, and some of it is unrealised and didn't make it in there, and some of it is just shit. It's 25 bloody years of work and, of course, I'm proud of it, proud that I put the effort in, but there's also one part of me going, 'How did that happen?'"

How, indeed? It is a question that exercises the minds of his many detractors in the art world: how did a mouthy, working-class lad from Leeds, with hooligan tendencies, become the biggest – and the richest – artist on the planet? (In the Sunday Times Rich List of 2010, Hirst's wealth was estimated at £215m.) The answer is long and complex, and has much to do with the radical shifts in culture that have occurred over the past 25 years or so, both in Britain and the world: the unstoppable rise of art as commodity and the successful artist as a brand; the ascendancy of a post-Thatcher generation of Young British Artists (YBAs) who set out, unapologetically, to make shock-art that also made money; the attendant rise of uber-dealers such as Jay Jopling in London and Larry Gagosian in New York; and the birth of a new kind of gallery culture, in which the blockbuster show rules and merchandising is a lucrative sideline.

At the centre of this ultra-commodified art world stands Damien Hirst, art superstar: the richest, loudest, biggest YBA of all. Except that, no longer young, he seems – at the very moment when his canonisation by the art establishment is complete – to be in a long period of transition. When I last spoke to him, in September 2009, in his vast studio near Stroud, Gloucestershire, it was exactly a year after the astounding success of Beautiful Inside My Head Forever, his record-breaking Sotheby's auction of 2008. Back then, just before the world markets tumbled, Hirst made headlines by bypassing his dealers, Jopling and Gagosian, altogether, and taking more than £111m in sales in two days of often-frenzied bidding. Right on the cusp of the recession, the Sotheby's auction was a pivotal moment for Hirst – a grand farewell, he told me, to the "big work" he had been making for years. He also told me then that conceptualism was "a total dead end" and said: "You spend 20 years celebrating your immortality, and then you realise that's not what it's about."

Since then, he has been relatively quiet on the creative (if not the commercial) front, working mainly on his own paintings: that is, canvases on which he, and he alone, applies the paint. Many of them, including a series made after the suicide of his friend Angus Fairhurst in March 2008, were completed in a room in Claridge's that his good friend Paddy McKillen (co-owner of the hotel) loaned him rent-free, in return for some paintings that now decorate the Connaught, another of McKillen's London hotels. An exhibition of that work, No Love Lost, opened at the Wallace Collection in London in October 2009 to uniformly murderous reviews, the late art critic Tom Lubbock comparing Hirst to "a not very promising first-year art student".

Undaunted, Hirst has continued to paint, and when I travelled down to his country home in deepest Devon a few weeks ago, he showed me briefly around his garden shed, where a paint-splattered stuffed bear stood sentinel over a group of partially completed canvases, featuring brightly coloured parrots in lush landscapes and a single big painting of a human head in a wash of what you might call Bacon blue. A few stuffed parrots stood on perches in the centre of the cluttered room, bright yellow and green, as if staring at their painted selves. "When all else fails," Hirst quipped, "get yourself a few dead parrots." It all seemed a long way from a giant blue shark in a tank of formaldehyde. "I've spent a long time avoiding painting and dealing with it from a distance," he said. "But as I get older I'm more comfortable with it."

The house in Devon, where Hirst currently lives with his wife, Maia Norman, and their three children, is one of several properties he owns. He also has a stately home, Toddington Manor, in Gloucestershire, that will one day house a collection of his own work. Near Stroud, he has another house with a vast studio attached, where, not that long ago, many of his 150-strong team of assistants laboured over his serial works: the spot paintings, spin paintings, cabinets and vitrines. He has a houseboat in Chelsea, a house in Thailand, where he spent Christmas, and another in Mexico, although he hasn't been there for a while because "it's a bit wild west out there at the moment".

In London, as well as Science, his organisational hub, he also owns a big chunk of Newport Street in Lambeth, which is currently being turned into a new gallery that will open in 2014 and house his extensive collection of contemporary art by the likes of Bacon, Koons, Murakami, Richard Prince, Sarah Lucas and even Banksy – "We do these collaborations with my spots. I got one from him recently and he'd written all over it in big black letters: Sorry, The Lifestyle You Ordered Is Out of Stock."

Over lunch in Hirst's quayside restaurant in Ilfracombe, beneath a pristine glass cabinet full of pills, I ask him if it was always his motivation to be the biggest, the most successful? "I always wanted to be bigger, but not biggest. Even as a kid in drawing class, I had real ambition. I wanted to be the best in the class but there was always some other feller who was better; so I thought, 'It can't be about being the best, it has to be about the drawing itself, what you do with it.' That's kind of stuck with me. Being best is a false goal, you have to measure success on your own terms."

With Damien Hirst, though, it aways seems to come down to three things: art, ambition and money, though not necessarily in that order. For that reason, as curator Ann Gallagher asserts in her catalogue introduction to the Tate Modern show: "Like no other artist of his generation, Damien Hirst has permeated the cultural consciousness of our times." What that says about us – and about Hirst – is a matter of some debate. Writing recently in the New Yorker on the simultaneous exhibition of all Hirst's 1,500 signature spot paintings in all 11 Gagosian galleries dotted around the globe, the American art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote: "Hirst will go down in history as a particularly cold-blooded pet of millennial excess wealth. That's not Old Master status, but it's immortality of a sort."

Schjeldahl's critical hauteur is not untypical. The bigger Hirst has become, the more he has become an object of scorn to some serious art critics, a symptom of all that is wrong with contemporary art – and the rampant, market-led capitalism that drives it – as well as an easy target for the flak directed at conceptual art in general. "His work," writes Gallagher, measuredly, "is characterised by its directness as well as its ambition; it is both deadpan and affecting, and it provokes awe and outrage in equal measure."

That, one senses, is exactly how Hirst – mellower these days, but still a northern prole with attitude to burn – likes it. Is there a little part of him that still rejoices in the notion that he is, at heart, a working-class lad who is somehow sticking it to the toffs of the art world? "All of me, I'd say," he replies, cackling. "I mean, I don't fit, do I? I can play the game, but I don't really fit. But you get older and you realise that rebellion doesn't really matter to the market. I kind of learned that early on and I've never forgotten it." How early on? "Well, I remember in about 1989, when I was still an outsider and all my mates were having shows and I wasn't, and it really bugged me. As I was making the fly piece, I was thinking: 'I'm gonna show you. I'm gonna kill you with this one, knock you down dead, and change the world.' And I showed it to a few galleries and they all just turned round and went 'Marvellous, darling.' It didn't have the effect I wanted. It had the opposite effect. I was gutted, in a way."

As a young teenager, Damien Hirst wanted most of all to be a punk, but, as he now puts it, "I was just too young and not angry enough." He remembers his mother melting his one Sex Pistols record to fashion it into a plant holder, and he remembers sneaking out, aged 12 or 13, with his "punk clothes" hidden in a bag, then changing into them when he was out of sight of his house. "I think that attitude crept into my art somehow. I was always looking for ways to sneak stuff into the art world and make it explode in their faces. I was an infiltrator."

Growing up in Leeds, Hirst was a handful for his mother, Mary Brennan, who worked in the local Citizens' Advice Bureau. His punk phase came just after the man he thought was his father walked out on the family when Hirst was 12. He also went through a brief shoplifting phase – he was arrested twice – before he was finally accepted on his second application to study an art foundation course at Jacob Kramer College in Leeds.

As a teenager, he made regular visits to Leeds University's Anatomy Museum to practise drawing, and it was there he found inspiration for his first piece of shock art: a photograph mounted on a steel frame called With Dead Head, first exhibited in 1991, in which his 16-year-old self poses, grinning, beside the severed head of a middle-aged man which sits on a mortuary table. It set the scene, if not the tone, for much of what was to follow.

Hirst moved to London in the mid-1980s, and for a time worked on building sites, before being accepted to Goldsmiths in 1986. There, under the tutelage of the artist Michael Craig-Martin, he realised that for the time being, at least, painting was over and that, in contemporary art, the idea was the be all and end all.

"When I arrived there, I was this angry young painter looking at all the conceptual work being made there and dismissing it as pure crap," he says, laughing. "But I got seduced by it. Initially, I was finding pieces of wood, banging them together, and slapping the paint on. It was Rauschenberg, de Kooning and a bit of Schwitters. It had been done to death and they told me so. I went back up to Leeds and I thought, 'OK, I've got to deal with the world I live in – advertising, TV, media. I need to communicate the here and now.' I realised that you couldn't use the tools of yesterday to communicate today's world. Basically, that was the big light that went on in my head."

The rest is art history, though it took a while to be made. You could even say that Hirst the entrepreneur arrived in the public eye before Hirst the artist, when he curated Freeze, a three-part group show of his contemporaries, including Angus Fairhurst, Gary Hume, Michael Landy, Sarah Lucas and Mat Collishaw. It was held in a disused warehouse in London's Docklands in the summer of 1988. The space – and the ambition – was influenced by Charles Saatchi's big gallery in Boundary Road in north London, which opened in the mid-1980s, and initially showed work by pioneering American conceptual artists like Sol LeWitt and Donald Judd, both of whom influenced Hirst.

Despite being a student show, Freeze became the most talked-about art event of the year in London, attracting the attention of both Saatchi and Serota. "It amuses me that so many people think what happened was calculated and cleverly manipulated," Craig-Martin said later, "whereas in fact it was a combination of youthful bravado, innocence, fortunate timing, good luck and, of course, good work."

By the time he left Goldsmiths, Hirst was already making spot paintings and medicine cabinets, both in highly formalised series, and made with the help of a small team of assistants. In 1991, he had his first solo show, In and Out of Love, in a disused shop in central London. His creative imagination had taken another leap. Visitors entered a room in which live butterflies fluttered around, having hatched from canvases embedded with pupae. In another room, dead butterflies were arranged on white canvases placed around a white table with four overflowing ashtrays. All the Hirstian themes were already in place: life and death, beauty and horror, as well as the sense of spectacle that would become the defining aspect of his work.

At a Serpentine gallery show that same year, Hirst met Jay Jopling, who would soon become his dealer. Things moved even faster after that. For a show at the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, Hirst referred in the catalogue to a work in progress that had been commissioned by Charles Saatchi. Entitled The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of a Living Person, it comprised a 14ft-long tiger shark suspended in a tank of formaldehyde. It did not appear in the Saatchi Gallery until 1992, but when it did, it radically changed the world of contemporary art – and the course of Damien Hirst's life.

Having been bought by Saatchi for £50,000, the shark in the formaldehyde-filled vitrine became an icon of contemporary art of the 1990s and perhaps the defining work of what would come to be known as the YBA movement. ("£50,000 For Fish Without Chips" ran a headline in the Sun at the time.) In 2004, the work was sold to an American collector, Steven A Cohen, for a reputed $8m. In 2006, the original shark, having deteriorated, was replaced at Hirst's insistence by a new formaldehyde-injected one, which was then loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It is that shark that visitors to the Tate Modern show will see. (Both Hirst and Cohen seem unfazed by the big art-historical question of whether a replacement can ever have the import of the original art work. Only time will answer that one.)

"It's what Jeff Koons once referred to as a high-maintenance piece of art," says Hirst, when I ask him about the practicalities of owning a shark in a tank. "The formaldehyde works are guaranteed for 200 years. I would like it to always look as fresh as the day I made it, so part of the contract is: if the glass breaks, we mend it; if the tank gets dirty, we clean it; if the shark rots, we find you a new shark." At 22 tons, it must be a bugger to transport, though? "Not really. The tank and the shark travel separately. Then you clean it and set it up, add the formaldehyde. Basically," he says, without irony, "it's just a big aquarium with a dead fish in it."

Since the shark first swam into the public consciousness in 1992, it has, as Hirst once admitted to me, "been hard to see the art for the dollar signs". His astonishing earning power came to a head with the Sotheby's auction in September 2008, when total sales were 10 times higher than the previous record for work by a single artist. By then, he already held the record for the most money paid in auction for a single work of art by a living European artist, the emir of Qatar having paid £9m the previous year for Lullaby Spring, a steel cabinet containing 6,136 neatly arranged pills.

"Money is massive," says Hirst, when I remind him of the above quote. "I don't think it should ever be the goal, but I had no money as a kid and so I was maybe a bit more motivated than the rest. I used to argue with Angus [Fairhurst] and Sarah [Lucas] about that all the time when we were starting out and struggling. They'd say: 'You're obsessed' and I'd be like, 'It's important.' See, if you don't care about it, often you don't deal with it, then it screws you. I do believe art is more powerful than money, though. I still believe that. And if I ever find out money's more important, I'll knock it on the head."

For all that, Damien Hirst has become for many the epitome of the artist as businessman, entrepreneur and global brand. It is quite a transformation, given that in the wild years of the 1990s, when the YBAs held their own in the drinking, tooting and necking pills stakes with Noel and Liam and the rest of the Britpop crew, Hirst was the loudest, drunkest and, some would say, most objectionable lad of the lot. His bills at the Groucho club, sent monthly to his home address, were legendary, as was his tendency to go out for a drink on a Friday night and get home in the early hours of Sunday morning. He has not touched a drink – nor popped a pill, nor snorted a line – in five years. Does he miss the good old, bad old days?

"Nah. I've done it, man," he says, shaking his head and reaching for a Diet Coke. "I had a beautiful 10 years and then, suddenly, it started to hurt. I couldn't handle the hangovers: waking up in the sticky filth of the Colony Room on the floor; sweating my way though meetings at White Cube; going to meet Larry [Gagosian] on the Anadin, the Nurofen, the Berocca and the Vicks nasal spray, looking like an alcoholic tramp. It wasn't good. I just woke up one day and thought: 'That's it. It's over.' Haven't touched a drop since."

We talk about Louise Bourgeois, whom Hirst visited before her death last year, and I mention her belief that happy people could not make great art. Is he happy? He laughs. "Making art, good art, is always a struggle. It can make you happy when you pull it off. There's no better feeling. It's beauteous. But it's always about hard work and inspiration and sweat and good ideas. I don't believe it's about God-given genius, but I do believe somehow in the magic of art even though I don't want to. I believe in science. I want clear answers." He pauses for a moment. "I want to make art, create objects that will have meaning for ever. It's a big ambition, universal truth, but somebody's gotta do it."

Damien Hirst is at Tate Modern, London SE1 to 9 Sep, sponsored by the Qatar Museums Authority. Observer readers can buy two tickets for the price of one: the offer is valid on full-price tickets only and must be booked before 4 April. Visit and quote promotional code OBS241 © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 02 2011

Charles Saatchi: The hideousness of the art world

Even a show-off like me finds this new, super-rich art-buying crowd vulgar and depressingly shallow

Being an art buyer these days is comprehensively and indisputably vulgar. It is the sport of the Eurotrashy, Hedge-fundy, Hamptonites; of trendy oligarchs and oiligarchs; and of art dealers with masturbatory levels of self-regard. They were found nestling together in their super yachts in Venice for this year's spectacular art biennale. Venice is now firmly on the calendar of this new art world, alongside St Barts at Christmas and St Tropez in August, in a giddy round of glamour-filled socialising, from one swanky party to another.

Artistic credentials are au courant in the important business of being seen as cultured, elegant and, of course, stupendously rich.

Do any of these people actually enjoy looking at art? Or do they simply enjoy having easily recognised, big-brand name pictures, bought ostentatiously in auction rooms at eye-catching prices, to decorate their several homes, floating and otherwise, in an instant demonstration of drop-dead coolth and wealth. Their pleasure is to be found in having their lovely friends measuring the weight of their baubles, and being awestruck.

It is no surprise, then, that the success of the uber art dealers is based upon the mystical power that art now holds over the super-rich. The new collectors, some of whom have become billionaires many times over through their business nous, are reduced to jibbering gratitude by their art dealer or art adviser, who can help them appear refined, tasteful and hip, surrounded by their achingly cool masterpieces.

Not so long ago, I believed that anything that helped broaden interest in current art was to be welcomed; that only an elitist snob would want art to be confined to a worthy group of aficionados. But even a self-serving narcissistic showoff like me finds this new art world too toe-curling for comfort. In the fervour of peacock excess, it's not even considered necessary to waste one's time looking at the works on display. At the world's mega-art blowouts, it's only the pictures that end up as wallflowers.

I don't know very many people in the art world, only socialise with the few I like, and have little time to gnaw my nails with anxiety about any criticism I hear about.

If I stop being on good behaviour for a moment, my dark little secret is that I don't actually believe many people in the art world have much feeling for art and simply cannot tell a good artist from a weak one, until the artist has enjoyed the validation of others – a received pronunciation. For professional curators, selecting specific paintings for an exhibition is a daunting prospect, far too revealing a demonstration of their lack of what we in the trade call "an eye". They prefer to exhibit videos, and those incomprehensible post-conceptual installations and photo-text panels, for the approval of their equally insecure and myopic peers. This "conceptualised" work has been regurgitated remorselessly since the 1960s, over and over and over again.

Few people in contemporary art demonstrate much curiosity. The majority spend their days blathering on, rather than trying to work out why one artist is more interesting than another, or why one picture works and another doesn't.

Art critics mainly see the shows they are assigned to cover by their editors, and have limited interest in looking at much else. Art dealers very rarely see the exhibitions at other dealers' galleries. I've heard that almost all the people crowding around the big art openings barely look at the work on display and are just there to hobnob. Nothing wrong with that, except that none of them ever come back to look at the art – but they will tell everyone, and actually believe, that they have seen the exhibition.

Please don't read my pompous views above as referring to the great majority of gallery shows, where dealers display art they hope someone will want to buy for their home, and new collectors are born every week. This aspect of the art world fills me with pleasure, whether I love all the art or not.

I am regularly asked if I would buy art if there was no money in it for me. There is no money in it for me. Any profit I make selling art goes back into buying more art. Nice for me, because I can go on finding lots of new work to show off. Nice for those in the art world who view this approach as testimony to my venality, shallowness, malevolence.

Everybody wins.

And it's understandable that every time you make an artist happy by selecting their work, you create 100 people that you've offended – the artists you didn't select.

I take comfort that our shows have received disobliging reviews since our opening exhibition of Warhol, Judd, Twombly and Marden in 1985. I still hold that it would be a black day when everybody likes a show we produce. It would be a pedestrian affair, art establishment compliant, and I would finally know the game was up. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 27 2011

Gesamtkunstwerk: New Art From Germany

Saatchi Gallery, London

All credit to Charles Saatchi. He has bought (and sold) enough international art of late to mount museum-scale shows that bring entire nations into some kind of focus for a British audience. He began with America, then moved to China, India and various countries of the Middle East and is now exhibiting the work of 24 artists from Germany on all three floors of his gallery.

Gesamtkunstwerk represents Saatchi's purchasing power too, of course: his recent outlays, risks and bets. It takes a sharp interest in the market; you might say it depicts the market to some extent. But it also offers an experience of contemporary art that few of us will see without travelling to Berlin at least, and it's one in the eye for Tate too, being the kind of show that none of our public museums can afford.

By coincidence (or perhaps not?) Saatchi is showing a predominantly young German scene just as Tate Modern is showing the old, in the person of Gerhard Richter, whose works Saatchi collected long ago. Strangely, there is no crossover. Richter's immense influence over succeeding generations – his intellectualism, his historical reach, the meditative depth of his photo-based paintings – is nowhere apparent at the Saatchi Gallery. This art goes in different directions altogether.

So that is something to bear in mind if you're looking for a comprehensive survey. A strong and enduring strain of German art has been bypassed in favour of works large or loud enough to fill these palatial rooms. The paintings are the size of billboards and fully as blatant. The sculptures rise high or sprawl by the metre along the floor. The predominant look is trashy, heavy-handed, wilfully unbeautiful and chaotic.

Huge black balloons (by Thomas Zipp) use up all the available airspace between floor and ceiling in one room. It takes Andro Wekua 170 panels of glazed ceramic to summon a crude sunset, cinema-scale, in another. I liked Max Frisinger's enormous vitrines crammed with contemporary junk – a world of consumer goods artfully assembled so that they almost seem to have a meaning at which one guesses, nose pressed against the glass, becoming a window-shopper in turn – but less is indeed more, for one vitrine was enough.

Junk predominates as both material and metaphor. Many of these artists, especially those born in the 1970s, belong to what's been described as the post-po-mo generation, wandering about in an age of vacuity and defeat, making work (this is the spin) that defies the ghosts of 20th-century German culture.

And there is resistance here, to be sure. André Butzer certainly doesn't want to be liked at all. His monumental canvases, with their scribbly allusions to German and American pop culture, violently worked in garish impasto, are an all-out affront. A Halloween mask, a bit of wonky ab-ex: a canvas can look nearly abstract but still have "Hitler-Cornflakes" lettered up the edge so there is no escaping the sly sententiousness of his work.

Ida Ekblad literally works with junk: bent, flattened or embedded in concrete and upended to resemble a slab of pavement displayed like a picture on the wall. She doodles in scrap metal, sculpts in any old iron. One rusting form rises in twists and turns, parodying early modernism, as it seems, but then she caps the joke with a dirty towel dangling bathetically from the top.

The art in Gesamtkunstwerk is ostentatiously handmade. Anselm Kiefer's gray canvases are pastiched (by Butzer) in mocking fingerpaint. Huge collages are laboriously assembled (by Kirstine Roepstorff) from scraps and glitter. Alexandra Bircken builds shelters from branches draped with old rags, in the tradition of Isa Genzken (ex-spouse of Gerhard Richter).

Genzken (born 1948) is something of a mother figure here. A whole gallery is devoted to her junk towers, teetering columns of old shoes, fake flowers, battered toys and old master reproductions. Some people find these melancholy, others comical; to me they are deliberately evasive. There are other senior Germans on show – Georg Herold, for instance, represented by two stick-figure odalisques that ingeniously combine drawing and sculpture – but Genzken is the presiding influence, with her lo-fi gaffer-taped aesthetic.

And this is a problem with Saatchi's nation-based shows. No matter how superbly installed – and even the weakest piece looks briefly plausible here – the art hasn't the space to speak on its own terms. Similarities, as opposed to singularities, emerge.

Clearly this is not a definitive cross-section of contemporary German art. It excludes the biggest names – Anselm Kiefer, Thomas Schütte, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Scheibitz, Neo Rauch, all shown by Saatchi years ago – in favour of new blood. But even then it represents something quite particular – namely Saatchi's own tastes, which have in the past tended to the slick, the epigrammatic, the gimmicky and the novel; above all, the immediately recognisable look.

So you have the Tobias twins, Gert and Uwe, painting quirky discs and biomorphs in bright colours – a bit Klee, a bit Miró – except that they turn out to be woodcuts applied to mural-length canvases. Or Jeppe Hein's mirror painting that vibrates at your approach. Or the large-scale model that features in almost all Saatchi shows – in this case Zhivago Duncan's post-apocalyptic mountain range through which tiny trains, planes and automobiles chug and whirl on miniature tracks; toy art, fun to gawp at.

The work here is stuff, and treated like stuff. You pick your way through the assortment – geopolitics, gender politics, crass comedy – in a spirit of curiosity. So this is what they are doing in Stuttgart or New York (some of the German artists live abroad; some of the German-based artists are American or Scandinavian).

Everything slides out of mind as you stroll, leaving one thing behind for the next, homing in on something, side-stepping something else. It is the gallery equivalent of shopping.

And if Gesamtkunstwerk represents anything at all, it is the market: contemporary art that is still emerging in the commercial sector, passing through the biennale phase or, with luck, on its way to a private collection or museum. This show may or may not help it on its way, who knows. But it is unlikely to come to rest with Charles Saatchi. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 09 2011

Charles Saatchi

Charles Saatchi has remade the British art market three times, most famously by championing young British artists such as Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas. But was he lucky or did he have true vision? And more importantly can he do it again?

I am probably the only person who can truly say that Charles Saatchi saved my life. During the holidays in 1986 I worked as a gallery assistant in Charles's Boundary Road gallery in northwest London, during the installation of the Richard Serra and Anselm Kiefer exhibition. I got to drill the holes for hooks in the back of the wooden supports of Kiefer paintings. It was nerve-wracking – one false move and there could be a hole in a £1m masterpiece. At the end of every day I swept the gallery clean of the straw that had fallen off these visceral, apocalyptic landscapes, where paint was mixed with earth, grass and photographs.

I was 19 and earned £80 a week. Cranes were used to position Richard Serra's sculptures in which 1-ton slabs or rolls of rusting steel and lead leaned against each other. These works are quite possibly the most important sculptures of the past 50 years, with their dramatic but abstracted sense of danger, built on the simplest arrangements of materials – leaning, propping and balancing .They could also be lethal: one technician had already been killed installing a Serra in America, and the artist himself had spent months in a wheelchair after another accident.

One day Charles came on a lightning tour of the gallery to see how the installation was going. I and a few "riggers" were holding upright one of the four slabs of One Ton Prop (House of Cards) which leant against each other. As Charles indicated some instant changes he wanted to the position of another work, the head of the installation team motioned the rest of his team to come over. For a moment I was faced with the prospect of holding a ton of lead on my own. "Don't let that young man hold that all by himself," Charles said. I remember a number of stronger men rushing to my assistance. That was Charles –  impatient, controlling but also thoughtful towards his serfs. Like an emperor.

As I read The History of the Saatchi Gallery, a magnificent new cloth-and-leather-bound volume reminiscent of an original edition of Macaulay's History of England, I was overcome with melancholy. Charles Saatchi's achievement derives from an imperial character – single-minded, visionary, decisive, bold but also capricious, hot-tempered, hubristic, with a short attention span and a certain vulnerability, that emerges in turns as shyness and defensiveness. Once, he was invincible, but now that times have changed the empire appears too large and undefined. While the court poets still compose panegyrics beyond the walls of his palace, his power is fading. But it's not too late. Charles can save his empire, but he will have to change his ways.

Saatchi almost never gives interviews. He didn't even appear in his own recent TV series, School of Saatchi, on BBC2. When he does talk it's light and unrevealing – as in his 2009 book My Name is Charles Saatchi and I am an Artoholic – so he has to be written about from a distance. The result is that his reputation is still shrouded in the myths of the 1990s, when Charles was the only collector in town. He was the puppet master of contemporary artists. He made and broke reputations with his cheque book. The legend is that he ruined the career of the Italian neo-expressionist figurative painter Sandro Chia by peremptorily selling all the work he owned by him – something he denies. But there's more to the history of the Saatchi Gallery than that.

As far as the book is concerned, there's precious little history in The History of the Saatchi Gallery. The essays are thin, as if most of the stuff's been censored out. But the true story of the Saatchi gallery is epic. There's the first wife who pulled the strings – it was Doris Saatchi who set Charles off on his collecting passion. There are moments when friends fall out over fame and money – like the time when Charles threatened to dump a large number of his Damien Hirsts, including the shark, on the market, so that Hirst and his gallery were cornered into buying them back for millions of pounds more than they had sold them for. There's meddling from rival princes – Saatchi had huge rows with the landlord of County Hall about what he was allowed to show where. There is the overnight accumulation of fortunes, as when Charles sold work for millions of pounds' profit at auction; and there's a climactic come-uppance – but we'll come back to that.

It's a shame Saatchi is not more forthcoming on these controversies, because they do not threaten his achievement. Behind these personal dramas Saatchi changed contemporary cultural history, three times. Between 1985 and 1992 he bought and exhibited Europe and America's leading contemporary artists, from Bruce Nauman and Cindy Sherman to Philip Guston and Sigmar Polke. All these artists already had huge reputations abroad. Charles was certainly not making any of their names. He was an importer, but that is no criticism: no other collector was doing it in Britain. London was nowhere near being a centre for contemporary art like Paris, New York or Berlin; Charles was one of the people who began to change all that.

Then, in the 1990s, he had an altogether more single-handed success. He became the patron of young artists including Tracey Emin, Gary Hume, Sarah Lucas and Hirst. He bought their work early on from Hirst's Freeze show in 1988, and then from the fledgling galleries of Jay Jopling, Karsten Schubert and others.

He showed them in 1992 in his show Young British Artists, from which the YBA term dates. Hirst had a dramatic solo exhibition at the ICA in 1993, and the buzz around these artists persuaded Norman Rosenthal to put on a show at the stuffy old Royal Academy, consisting entirely of their work, called Sensation. The 1997 show was a smash. The column inches became column miles. There was an outcry in the UK over Marcus Harvey's portrait of Myra Hindley made with children's handprints and, when the show travelled to the Brooklyn Museum in New York in 1999, an outcry over Chris Ofili's Madonna with elephant dung. Several of these artists now make works that sells for £500,000 upwards in the primary market.

Charles's achievement here was massive in almost every sense. He invented a new movement – something every critic and curator dreams of doing. Just as Apollinaire came up with cubism and Breton with surrealism, Charles coined YBAs. This was not an empty slogan. The YBAs created a new and accessible fusion of pop and conceptualism that had the distinctively British feel of an indie band. Sarah Lucas's melons and cucumbers were crude but uncanny – pub surrealism. Hume's candy coloured abstract paintings looked like ice cream served by an American colourfield painter. Hirst's shark was "Jaws – the art work", with all its sequels, too. The YBAs made art that was simpler, punchier and more fun (but not necessarily more interesting or original) than what had gone before. The YBAs accelerated the trajectory of artistic style towards production line and brand identity.

Saatchi's YBAs changed culture not only in Britain, but abroad. Takashi Murakami, a Japanese Warhol – perhaps the most successful pop artist at the moment, with huge studios in Japan and NYC, and a show currently at Gagosian's Britannia Street gallery – enthusiastically cites Hirst as an influence. So does India's Subodh Gupta, who makes various $1m skulls, wheels and nuclear explosions out of amalgamations of Indian tiffin cookware. The most famous artist of the moment, Ai Weiwei, imprisoned and then released by the Chinese authorities, is another YBA-influenced figure with his huge studios in China, where a team of assistants follow his instructions delivered in mobile phone calls and occasional visits, and where scores of old Chinese earthenware vases half-dipped in random primary colours are arranged in large grids as installations. You can see these works at the Lisson Gallery in London right now.

I wonder where he got that idea from – you could cleverly exhibit a Hirst spot painting with one of these. It's difficult to imagine the art history of the past 30 years being the same without the YBAs. And it's even more difficult to imagine the YBAs without Charles Saatchi.

Having played a central role in inventing a new kind of art, Charles then led the way inventing a new kind of art economy. He was the most famous of the pioneering new breed of "specullector", a fusion of the art collector and dealer/speculator who drove the art boom of the last decade. In the past, art collectors bought art and held on to it for 10 or 20 years, while dealers bought and sold it within a few months. But from the end of the 1990s Saatchi started doing this with his collection of British and other artists in cycles of five years and less. The art market is based on private transactions so it's difficult to know the extent of this activity, but by the mid-2000s it became more visible through the auction rooms.

In the Triumph of Painting (2005), Saatchi put on wonderful exhibitions of paintings by Peter Doig, Martin Kippenberger and others, then a few months later sent the best of the work to be auctioned for a profit. One of his Doigs went for £6m to a secretive Georgian oligarch. The new owner flew it, along with his $100m Picasso, back to Tbilisi – where the airport was closed down to receive this special cargo – and it then disappeared into storage.

Since then, one often has déjà vu when visiting a contemporary art auction preview, as you turns a corner and suddenly find yourself in part of a previous Saatchi show. Today there are handfuls of specullectors, among whose American ranks are the Warhol-obsessed Mugrabi family and collector-commentator Adam Lindemann, while the entire Chinese art market is driven by Chinese specullectors who Charles inspired. He is now overshadowed by impulsive enthusiasts with far more money than himself. And so it has come to be that Saatchi has become the victim of his own success.

Charles once invited me to dinner in Kensington. I knew this was my big chance to find out how he worked. What I really wanted to know was: what was his strike rate? We know nothing about Charles's inventory, and so we know nothing about his success rate. Perhaps he had thousands of works by forgotten artists he couldn't sell languishing in storerooms. Maybe he took a scattergun approach, buying work from, say, 50 artists a year for £5k each, in the hope that five of these artists would become famous and their work would go up in value 10 times over five years, thus breaking even. That wasn't an unreasonable proposition. But every question I asked was batted away with a cheeky grin.

Instead, Charles seemed more interested in getting stuff out of me – he particularly wanted to see the tattoo which the Belgian artist Wim Delvoye had inscribed on my back. That had been my big prank in my TV series Art Safari. Charles, I realised, was still a bit of a schoolboy, who enjoyed winding people up. He liked to say or create art, and then see what reactions people had to it. In his silences I finally understood the secret of YBA phenomenon. It was jerry-built. Charles splashed some cash and built a hype as best as he could, making things up as he went. In the months leading up to the Sensation exhibition some people bitched he'd even had to go on a new buying spree to acquire several "important" works to fill in gaps in the show. But there was no crime in that. He was adaptable, quick-witted and convincing. But he was also a have-a-go merchant.

The problem with Charles's exhibitions over the past 10 years is that they have tried to repeat the YBA story in other parts of the world. Charles would tell us all about the YAAs – young American artists – in his exhibition USA Today – and the YMEAs in Unveiled: New Art from the Middle East, not forgetting the YCAs in The Revolution Continues: New Art From China. Much of the time, Charles was following a few years behind the trend (a whole room full of Zhang Xiaogangs? You can't make up for lost time with quantity, dude). The descriptions were floridly meaningless. In the Triumph of Painting show I tittered over the description of Dirk Skreber's paintings of a car crash, as "empty spiritualism, transfixing the viewer with its awesome and ethereal presence", while Albert Oehlen's complex pictures "occupy a space between representation and abstraction, his forms and textures converging not to create an illusion, but a suggestion of invention". Much of the work looks like it's deliberately made to fit this story. Exciting but somewhat illogical whole-room pieces like rows of praying burqas made from silver foil, and the waxworks of world leaders in motorised wheelchairs in his basement.

Exhibitions today need more complicated thematic stories, and more scholarly descriptions and cataloguing. The age of curating is upon us, but Charles has so far been unwilling to embrace this change, as other London collectors with private foundations – Anita Zabludowicz, David Roberts and Alex Sainsbury – have wisely been doing.  The latest show The Shape of Things to Come exhibits many of the Saatchi flaws. It's the YSAs's – the young sculptural artists – show. Some marvellous work, but far too flashily installed. It's another funfare and fanfare to the future of art from the art world's self-mythologising enigmatic Svengali.

Charles is too withdrawn for the socially networked age we live in. He made a mistake not appearing in his TV series. He's never too far off the pages of the Sunday supplements and celebrity columns, thanks to his wife, Nigella, and is also fabulously connected to Britain's media and political elites. But that's not quite good enough to rule an empire of art in the 21st century. In an age of tweets and blogs, and in which "curating" is the in-word (even DJs are now rechristened music curators), no one buys the mysterious Svengali image any more.

Last week I WENT to the Royal Academy's graduate show party. The students and teachers were celebrating and between spells on the dancefloor, they told me breathlessly how Saatchi had bought up several of the students' complete shows. He paid full price for some, but bargained others down ruthlessly, I was told, offering 50% or less of the asking price. There was no rhyme or reason to the prices he wanted to pay. The students asked me anxiously: did I think it was bad if Saatchi bought their work? Would he sell it all one day and destroy their careers? My answer: don't be silly, it's great if Charles buys your work. He is no longer the only major collector of new artist's work in this country, so he can't make or break your career on his own. But what a shame Charles's image is stuck in the 1990s.

So what next? It could be that Saatchi's History may soon need one final chapter. His exhibitions have failed to make a big impact, while the gallery, insiders say, is incredibly expensive to run. That is probably why last year he surprised everyone, including his own staff, by announcing he was going to give his museum to the nation. A large number of works of art would be donated for free, but discussions with the Arts Council and Ministry of Culture suggested the taxpayer could end up footing the bill for running the gallery. So, a year on, there is no Tate Saatchi as of yet. Jeremy Hunt is still saying no, albeit in the politest terms: "Ministers expressed their gratitude when Mr Saatchi made his very generous offer. We understand that Mr Saatchi is now considering how he wants to move forward, and we are very happy to facilitate any discussions," a spokesman told Bloomberg last week. Cultural fads come and go, and Charles may be ahead of the curve for the first time in a decade, with his diminishing interest in the expensive sport of writing art history with a cheque book.

But I hope that is not the case. Charles has rewritten cultural history three times already. None of Britain's other collectors have done that – or have an ounce of his musketeer-like panache. He just needs to hire a few curators and reinvent his acquisitions strategy. Then perhaps he could change the art world again.

The History of the Saatchi Gallery is published by Booth-Clibborn Editions, £85 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 04 2011

Michael Craig-Martin: Up close and impersonal

He taught the YBAs but abhors the idea of art as self-expression. Michael Craig-Martin talks to Stuart Jeffries about bucket design, his new show – and being jealous of Damien Hirst

One evening, Michael Craig-Martin was driving along, listening to an absorbing discussion of contemporary art on Radio 4. "The guy who was talking was making some excellent points, but there were a few things I disagreed with. It only occurred to me after a long, long time that the voice on the radio was mine. I had to pull over because my heart was pounding."

What kind of person, you'll be asking, doesn't recognise their own voice? The kind of person who was born in Dublin, did toddler time in London, but spent most of his formative years in Washington DC, where he acquired a US twang. This still endures despite the fact he returned here in 1966 and became so synonymous with revolutionising the art scene that he's known as the godfather of the Young British Artists. "The weird thing is I don't even think I have an American accent."

It's a great story and almost a metaphor for Craig-Martin's vision of art. When he started drawing as a teenager in Washington, what struck him was how an image took on a life of its own, distant from the idea its creator had in their head – just as Craig-Martin's radio voice became an alien phenomenon coming at him over the airwaves.

"People call me a conceptual artist, as if the idea was all, but actually what interests me is what happens when the idea becomes a thing. Ideas are by their nature generalisations, something that can be applied to lots of things. But making art is about making particulars, and that particular something can be the generator of a generalisation."

Why do you care about this stuff? "When I was 12, I thought I had stumbled on a gold mine, but nobody around me seemed to care about it." What little Michael had stumbled across, looking at reproductions of modern art, was a new vision introduced by Marcel Duchamp (who put a urinal in a gallery) and elaborated on by later artists. "Radical art – and I've always thought of myself as radical – is always at the frontiers, always speculative, always too radical to be really understood initially. It changes your frame of reference. That's what Duchamp did."

It's also what Craig-Martin's most celebrated work of art did and does. An Oak Tree, from 1973, consists of a glass of water on a shelf in an otherwise empty gallery. "I was trying to work out what was the essence of a work of art. I thought it had to do with suspension of disbelief. You get it in theatre – why not in art?" When An Oak Tree was bought by the National Gallery of Australia in 1977, customs officials initially (and wonderfully) barred it from entry because it was "vegetation". A rare example of life imitating conceptual art.

But, I suggest, there is another vision of art. Not one that is speculative, but one that is reassuring. Isn't it reassuring to capture the human spirit on paper, to make works that are beautiful? "None of that interested me. As I came across modern art, I knew the only thing to be was an artist. To do that, the only thing to do was drawing. So I took life-drawing classes. It was mostly middle-aged women and me." What did you get from them? "Irritation. The presumption that life drawing underlies everything in art is fundamentally conservative."

A man with no style

A retrospective of Craig-Martin's drawings opens today at the Alan Cristea Gallery in London. Visitors expecting something akin to Watteau's immensely touching drawings – which are on display nearby at the Royal Academy, and show an artist seizing in chalk the essence of his human subjects while also expressing his own personality – will be confounded. There's scarcely a human in Craig-Martin's show, and every image is intended to obliterate rather than express the artist's personality. "I've always wanted to make drawings that were absolutely style-less," says Craig-Martin.

After graduating with an MA in fine art from Yale, Craig-Martin began to draw mass-produced objects: sandals, sardine cans, milk bottles. "I thought the objects we value least because they were ubiquitous were actually the most extraordinary." He gave up pencils and used crepe masking tape to produce ostensibly style-less drawings of them. Why? "I wanted to remove my hand from the process of drawing. I drew them without personal inflection." But isn't art about expression? "That's not what interested me. I was interested in how form followed function. Take a bucket: it can't be twice the size it is because if you filled it up, it would be too heavy to carry. The handle is in a certain place because if it was bigger, the side would hit your leg."

Increasingly, though, the form of manufactured objects does not follow their function. "Think of a mobile phone. You used to have a receiver with a defined earpiece and mouthpiece. Now you just have a box. Today everything looks like everything else. A phone looks like a computer looks like a camera."

There's a risk, then, that this retrospective will look like a graveyard of once-ubiquitous objects. "True. You think objects are for ever, but mass-produced objects only came in with the industrial revolution and maybe won't exist for much longer. The irony is that much of what I set out to draw, everyday objects, are curios. Milk bottles, who uses them? So the images become something other than I intended." What was the intention? "I wanted people to realise how extraordinary everyday objects are, and think about what image-making is. The impulse was never nostalgia, kitsch or a critique of consumerism."

There is a deeper irony. In his very effort to be style-less, Craig-Martin created a style, and a style that made him bankable. Those drawings and paintings where everyday objects outlined in black tape float out of bright red, yellow or blue backgrounds? Craig-Martin. A glass of water on a shelf? Craig-Martin. "Style is something you impute to a body of work. It looks like a linear trail, but while I was doing it all it was haphazard."

The anti-art era

Another irony is that his austere, quasi-philosophical art investigations are delightful in themselves, as if his images have indeed taken on a life of their own. One drawing in the new show is called Manhattan: in it, filing cabinet, ice-cube tray, a torch and other everyday objects assemble like a cityscape; another, Tropical Waters, has gun, lightbulb, can opener and other objects swirling like fish.

Craig-Martin never thought his kind of art would be popular. He casts his mind back to 1972, when the Hayward put on a show of British conceptualism called The New Art. "At the time, the people who cared about this stuff were just me and some artist friends. Art objects were deemed crazy and unintelligible, with people dismissing them because of what they read, not what they saw. There was practically no interest in art. Any press attention was vilification. I thought it would always be like this. But now people look to art rather than to theatre as a cultural model – an extraordinary change."

Isn't he responsible for that change? That, at least, is the story: in the 1980s, as an art teacher at London's Goldsmiths, Craig-Martin created and nurtured that generation of British artists who would transform one of the most visually conservative, anti-art cultures into one that was, and remains, art-crazy. "People think I gave Damien, Tracey and all the others career information. To say I did underestimates them. They were all beneficiaries of some tremendous art education that existed in British art schools from the 60s to the 80s, but they all knew those days were nearly over and that they couldn't do what I did as an artist, which was to fall back into teaching.

"They also knew they couldn't do what lots of artists have done – go on the dole. There was no dole. They knew the only way to survive was through their work. They had a sense that there was somebody out there to speak to, and started to work with the idea of an audience before there was an audience." Wasn't that Thatcherite entrepreneurialism? "It was more generous. The art world is usually a cruel place. I wouldn't recommend anyone going into it unless there's something here." He pats his chest. "With the YBAs, I saw a generosity I'd never witnessed before. When a collector came to a studio, the artist would say, 'Do you know so-and-so's work?' And if the collector said no, the artist would take them round to so and so's studio. It was a magical time."

Didn't you feel jealous of their success? "Of course! I remember Damien showing Charles Saatchi his idea for a shark in his notebook, and Saatchi saying, 'I'll pay for that.' There was nothing like that level of interest – or money – for my generation. In the 80s, only the Lisson Gallery was interested in new art. One gallery! Now there are 40 or 50." And you've benefited from that? "Sure. In lean times, I used to say yes to every commission – just in case there wouldn't be any more. Now I don't have to."

Craig-Martin works six days a week. He's currently producing works for an outdoor sculpture show that opens this month at the New Art Centre in Wiltshire, and curating a room at the Royal Academy's summer exhibition. Why work so hard? "I'm 70 this year, and I'm conscious that everything seems to be working physically, that my energy is there. But I'm trying to accomplish as much as I can because at some point I know that won't be the case. When you're 30 or 40, you don't think about it ending, about falling apart or dying. I do, so that's why I work hard."

• Michael Craig-Martin: Drawings 1967-2002 is at Alan Cristea Gallery, London W1, until 4 June. Details: 020-7439 1866. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 09 2010

Nothing to see here

It's blockbuster season at the big galleries. But Stuart Jeffries knows where he'd rather be – at Britain's small spaces, where the truly thrilling work is to be found

There is a tiny house made from human skin at the start of the Barbican gallery's current Surreal House exhibition. It's a sculpture called My Mother. My Father. My Sister. My Brother, and was made from pieces of artist Donald Rodney's skin, removed during one of many operations he underwent to combat sickle cell anaemia before his death in 1998. You could puff it away into oblivion, like a dandelion clock – yet this house of flesh is intimately grounded, dense with family and ethnic history (not least because the disease disproportionately afflicts people, like Rodney, of African and Caribbean ancestry).

I wasn't expecting such a bravura curatorial flourish at the Barbican this summer. I was expecting to have my soul crushed, as usual, under the brutalist heaviness of the architecture. This is a gallery where curators fight and lose against the interior design: ironically, even a recent Le Corbusier retrospective was neutralised by the gallery's double-height space and ill-advised side chambers; even the self-proclaimed pornographic monster of a photographer Nobuyoshi Araki proved a damp squib when he was given chance to romp here.

And yet, the Barbican's curators are showing their colleagues in Britain's biggest and best public art galleries how to put on a show with verve and intelligence, and at a time of year when everyone else seems to have given up. Surreal House curator Jane Alison has, with architects Carmody Groarke, fought the brutalist law and won this time, transforming the space into a series of aptly disorientating rooms. True, the show is a ragbag of sinister domestic art gambits, the thinking person's version of Bill Bryson's At Home book, but the hard imaginative work that has gone into it points to how conservative, plodding, dull, specious and intolerably wet the great galleries of Britain are from May to September.

Conservative? The Royal Academy's newly open Sargent and the Sea, and the National Gallery of Scotland's forthcoming Impressionist Gardens are set to be both tourist-friendly lollipops and visual Prozac for a staycationing nation of depressed and professionally insecure self-deluders. Not that I won't be going to see Sargent's swelling seas; it's just that I'll hate myself when I do.

Plodding? Tate Modern's current show Exposed, on surveillance photography, feels intellectually threadbare and aesthetically benumbing. Its chief – if unwitting – function is to make you run for relief to the marvellous Francis Alÿs mid-career retrospective across the landing. Like Tate Britain's Rude Britannia: British Comic Art (never mind the quality, just head to the gift shop and buy the £85 Gerald Scarfe, erm, scarf), it isn't good enough to justify the space allotted to it. I kept comparing both to a marvellous show that has just finished at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris: a visually thrilling, intellectually coherent, aesthetic-political tour through notions of crime and punishment in French art and society. That, at least, seemed to be curated by someone passionately engaged with the material they were exploring. (Indeed, the Paris show was the brainchild of Robert Badinter, the former minister who outlawed the death penalty in France and retired Madame la Guillotine in 1981.) Of all the exhibitions now showing at Britain's leading galleries, only the British Museum's exquisite survey of Renaissance drawings can compete with the Musée d'Orsay's when it comes to ambition and execution. Increasingly, it is to smaller, newer galleries like the Wellcome Trust in London (now running a terrific show on the theme of skin) that you look for intellectual clout and imagination.

Dull? I've got a theory about the National Gallery's two most recent Sainsbury wing shows. I can only think that their programmatic dreariness was contrived to drive art lovers back to the permanent collection; if so, it's not a bad thing to aim toward. A historical survey focusing on Paul Delaroche's The Execution of Lady Jane Grey has just been succeeded by an examination of art fakes; both are, aesthetically speaking, terrible disappointments, particularly after the gallery's scintillating The Sacred Made Real: Spanish Painting and Sculpture 1600-1700 of last autumn. Both shows have their place, but that should have been the Sunley Room upstairs – not the prestigious, if grimly subterranean, main exhibition space, previously occupied by blockbuster shows of Rembrandt, Titian and Holbein.

Specious? I know that Charles Saatchi has promised his collection to the nation, but that benevolence doesn't excuse the curatorial ineptitude that is becoming his London gallery's hallmark. Saatchi's latest show proves again that it is a lovely space filled with art doomed to be shown in themeless, ill thought-out "survey shows". Newspeak: British Art Now is the worst so far at the Duke of York's barracks, which is some feat.

Wet? I am getting tired of drying myself off after trips to summer shows at the South Bank's Hayward Gallery. In the summer of 2007, I got drenched in the disorientating vapour-filled room that was Antony Gormley's Blind Light. In 2008, at the gallery's Psycho Buildings show, I got soaked rowing across a rooftop infinity pool in a joke boat in order – at least this was the idea – to savour Austrian collective Gelitin's installation. To get the most out of this summer's Ernesto Neto show, I'm meant to take my swimsuit to the Brazilian's inflatable swimming pool, with its own pink crocheted hair net and his'n'hers yellow changing rooms. Hasn't the Hayward got any summer moves other than soaking its visitors?

A compost bin of a show

The summer rot set in, I suspect, when Tate Britain put on a compost bin of a show themed around gardening in 2004, featuring the usual horticultural subjects: Jarman's Dungeness, Beatrix Potter's Peter and the Rabbit illustrations, and the inevitable Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose by John Singer Sargent. You couldn't move in Pimlico for Alys Fowler types (God bless them) braying about the inadequate depiction of Gertrude Jekyll's hollyhocks. It was a show too easy on the eye, brain and curatorial effort. It set the bar low and that bar has sunk further since.

In London this summer, three commercial galleries (none of them obscure, I admit) are staging shows that trounce the big institutions. Wander down an unpromising street behind King's Cross station and you'll find Picasso: The Mediterranean Years, 1945-62, curated by the artist's biographer John Richardson and drawing on rarely seen works from the artist's family. Not only does the Gagosian's show intellectually outstrip the clumsy Peace and Freedom show at Tate Liverpool, which covers the same period in Picasso's work, but this show is pure pleasure: the paintings are joyful, the ceramics lively and the sculptures utterly winning (there is a baboon face made from a toy car; a mother throwing her child in the air, both of them made from sticks). Everything here expresses the customary haste of postwar Picasso, an aura of creative fecundity and bien être. Across London, at Helly Nahmad in Cork Street, are a dozen beautifully hung and lit paintings by Matisse: vistas, odalisques in flower-filled interiors, open windows looking out to the sea; all just as headily sunny and happy as Picasso at the Gagosian. Both shows remind me of what the biographer Richard Holmes said about Hilary Spurling's book on Matisse, that it was "a marvellous sunburst". And until last weekend, there was the discombobulating Gormley holographic matrix at White Cube in Mason's Yard, which the artist described as "a kind of diagram of perspective in which perspective is destroyed by perspective". It was a room of such fearful symmetry, such potent aesthetic punch and art historical savvy – just the kind of work that our bigger galleries should be dreaming of staging. But they aren't. The moral this summer is that small, like Donald Rodney's house of flesh, is beautiful.

Perfectly formed: the British Isles' best small galleries

Transmission Gallery and the Modern Institute, Glasgow

Glasgow has a bit of everything. The artist-run space Transmission was the first to show Scottish stars such as Douglas Gordon, while the Modern Institute manages home-grown talent alongside international names.

International Project Space and Ikon Gallery, Birmingham

While Ikon has the big names, the art school's International Project Space is all about under-the-radar talent, staging shows by the likes of cult New York design outfit Dexter Sinister, as well as rising star Emily Wardill.

The Changing Room, Stirling

One of Scotland's most innovative galleries: its exhibitions have included work by the likes of Charles Avery, who represented Scotland at the 2007 Venice Biennale.

Plymouth Arts Centre

Small but potent, this space recently put on a show co-developed with performance artist Marina Abramovic.

The Exchange, Penzance

Converted telephone exchange that's an interesting addition to the Cornish art map. The current show, by Fluxus artist Tatsumi Orimoto, challenges preconceptions about Alzheimer's.

Focalpoint, Southend-on-Sea

Housed in the local library, this gallery focuses on film and photography. Many of its shows address local issues, from immigration to redevelopment.

Spike Island and Arnolfini, Bristol

While the Arnolfini remains Bristol's cultural hub, Spike Island has made an impact with shows by younger artists such as Max Mara prize nominee Elizabeth Price.

Spacex, Exeter

Established in a Victorian warehouse in the 1970s, Spacex's expansive programme has ranged from Jeremy Deller's Folk Archive to work by digital artist Cory Arcangel.

g39, Cardiff

Artist-run space with a focus on experimentation and risk.

Milton Keynes Gallery

With shows ranging from Marcel Broodthaers to Turner-winner Mark Leckey, MKG's programme is never by the book.

Northern Gallery of Contemporary Art, Sunderland

This gallery's focus on emerging talents has included the likes of Sam Taylor-Wood, and its recent group shows have been inspired.

Outpost, Norwich

This tiny artist-run space has become a mainstay for fresh, mostly UK-based talent. Recent highlights include Matthew Darbyshire's satirical take on British design and sound art by German activists Ultra Red.

The International 3, Manchester

Shows in this not-for-profit space have tackled the persistence of medievalism and psychogeography.

The Furnace, A Foundation, Liverpool

A Foundation has reputation for enterprising commissions. A recent project with Artur Zmijewski included a pop-up Bauhaus-style art school.

Void, Derry

This gallery has staged outstanding shows by Eija-Liisa Ahtila and Christian Jankowski. A "curfew tower" owned by the KLF's Bill Drummond (pictured) provides an occasional offsite venue.

Skye Sherwin © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 01 2010

Nice gift Charles, but what now?

Handing over the Saatchi Gallery to the nation to become the Museum of Contemporary Art, London, is a generous gift but too many questions about future policy remain unanswered

So the Saatchi Gallery is to be renamed the Museum of Contemporary Art, London. The Saatchi Gallery will now join museums of contemporary art in Sydney, Los Angeles, New York (where the museum of contemporary art is better known as the New Museum) and various other major and not so major cities. What hubris, I thought, when I first heard the news.

On reflection, this seems churlish. It is an extremely generous gift, and the building itself is a great space for art, is extremely popular and attracts a very broad audience. But it is the collection that is likely to be problematic.

Exhibitions at the Saatchi Gallery are invariably incoherent: the work he shows can be spectacular, but alongside the good there is plenty that is bad or mediocre. We don't even know what art Saatchi currently owns, or what he is giving to the nation.

Even the works he is giving are variable in quality, and not always even the best works Saatchi first exhibited. There's no artist's film and video, for instance, and little good photography – and how can you have a museum of contemporary art that ignores these media?

For all his money and enthusiasm, Saatchi has never bought consistently or well. What else is Saatchi donating? Not more Ron Mueck, please.

Unlike other collections of contemporary art that have been shown internationally – the collection of Belgians Anton and Annick Herbert, or the collection of the legendary late German gallerist Konrad Fischer, both of which were built up over decades – Saatchi's collecting has never had any focus. Young Brits have come and gone, as have artists from the US, Germany, India, China and the Middle East.

Whatever happened to the New Neurotic Realism, an entirely made-up movement that never went anywhere? Richard Wilson's lake of reflective oil, Tracey Emin's bed and Jake and Dinos Chapman's sexualised mannequins never seemed to have much connection, except that they were made by British artists who live in London and happen to know each other.

Put these works together with some of the others mentioned and one can only imagine a series of nightmarish, specious exhibitions that misrepresent the trajectories of contemporary art.

The hope that the collection will evolve must be tempered by other questions, too: who will curate? What will be bought, and what sold off?

Most of all, what does it mean to "continue the same policy that was established when the gallery began 25 years ago", as the press release has it?

The truth is that there never was any policy. In the end, there is only Charles Saatchi: his enthusiasms and, now, his generosity. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Charles Saatchi gifts gallery to the nation

The millionaire art collector, Charles Saatchi, is to hand to the nation his Chelsea gallery and 200 works, including My Bed by Tracey Emin

The enigmatic ad-man turned art collector Charles Saatchi is to hand to the nation his Chelsea gallery and more than 200 works – including pieces by Tracey Emin, Grayson Perry and the Chapman Brothers.

Saatch, 67, announced today that the 70,000 sq ft gallery would be renamed MOCA London (Museum of Contemporary Art, London) when he retires, and would feature "a strong, rotating permanent collection of major installations", all of it free to the public.

Although no date has yet been set for his retirement, the 200 works will be displayed in three exhibitions at the gallery in 2012.

The art being gifted to the nation adds up to about £25m of work. It will include seminal YBA pieces such as Tracey Emin's My Bed and Jake and Dinos Chapman's Tragic Anatomies, the mutated mannequin installation first seen at the Royal Academy's Sensation exhibition.

Also in the colleciton will be Richard Wilson's Oil Room installation; Kader Attia's Ghost, which consisted of hundreds of praying figures made from aluminium foil; an Emily Prince installation, containing drawings of the 5,000-plus US service men and women who have been killed in Iraq and Afghanistan; and Jitish Kallat's Public Notice 2, in which he spells out a speech by Gandhi using bones.

The gallery said Saatchi wanted the museum to be "a living and evolving collection of work, rather than an archive of art history."

The Saatchi Gallery relocated to the former headquarters of the Duke of York regiment in 2008. How the new, publicly-owned gallery will operate in practice remains to be seen.

A spokeswoman for the gallery said it was "currently in discussion with potential government departments who would own the works on behalf of the nation". The government would be free to lend works to other institutions.

No charges will fall to the state, it was stressed. "All costs associated with the storage, restoration or cataloguing the collection will be borne by the museum," she said, while staff and other costs will be paid for by the gallery's sources of income, which include private sponsorship, the restaurant and shop and by hosting company events.

Saatchi will also continue to own many hundreds of works himself, she said, "which will be passed to his family on his death". © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 08 2010

Charles Saatchi's catalogue of disasters

The catalogue for the British Art Now exhibition is a bewildering creation all of its own

Newspeak: British Art Now, the new show at Charles Saatchi's honey-stone Chelsea pile, is intended as a survey of the best that contemporary British art has to offer. But inspiring greater ire than the art is the exhibition's truly baffling catalogue. "Incomprehensible," said the Guardian's Adrian Searle, while critic Paul Morley, on BBC2's The Review Show on Friday described it as "one of the great pieces of comedy writing of the year".

Here are some extracts:

On modern Britain "A nation demarcated where vomit meets surf, geographically encircled by froth."

On the artists "Articulated as doublespeak, they hand-make the virtual, cite history in fugue fervour, and find the poetic and enduring in the cacophony of pop cultural din."

On artist Barry Reigate "Choose kiddie-style porn with Barry Reigate's tittie fetish paintings, his cartoon Mickey Mouse sculptures so pervy. Get off on their ghetto-black sleaze."

On "naming the new realities" "By naming them, the world that is constantly hurtling in some unknown direction can be understood, and the straitjacket – which has for so long been known as culture – can be re-tailored and fitted to it anew."

On artist duo Littlewhitehead "Littlewhitehead's yoot spectacle boasts like a national emblem: hoodie-pack in a corner, both menacing and humorously punitive, elevating happyslapping to the level of white cube sublime." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 06 2010

The good, the bad and the indifferent

Spray-painted sheep, a mountain of speakers, a levitating theosophist – Adrian Searle searches for a theme at the puzzling Saatchi show

If I were a young or even not-so- young artist today, would I want to be in the Saatchi collection, and to feature in one of his endless survey shows? The chance would be the thing, I hear you say; and with the art world in recession, you have to get it where you can. The latest Saatchi gallery exhibition, with the Orwellian title Newspeak: British Art Now, has already been shown in the Hermitage museum in St Petersburg. The horrible catalogue is incomprehensible, and the exhibition itself is a ragbag of sometimes good, often bad and mostly indifferent art. For London, the show has been split into two; the first is at the Saatchi gallery till October. It feels like for ever.

Some works manage a sort of daydreamy feel. Iain Hetherington paints baseball caps with a familiar NY logo, set among abstract splotches, as if the caps had been tossed into a hedge. It is all supposed to mean more than it achieves. A plaintive few piano notes drift through the galleries, interspersed with a bit of ambient twang and electronic moan. These emanate from John Wynne's collection of 300 audio speakers, all reclaimed from a recycling plant, that tower in the corner of a double-height gallery and stand about the floor. Somewhere in all this is an old upright piano playing a piano-roll taken from a 1909 operetta. But only some notes get played. It sounds like John Cage or Erik Satie, and never repeats. There's a clever electronic gubbins hidden away somewhere that determines the sounds we hear. Cage would have enjoyed this. The most disconcerting thing, however, is a long length of vacuum-cleaner hose that snakes from a doorway and between the speakers to the pianola. The hose quivers, writhes and slithers about, as a hidden Hoover powers the pianola. It's like sharing the room with an awakening python.

Glasgow artist Karla Black fills another gallery with just three works. Scrunched-up cellophane dangles from the ceiling; a swathe of clingfilm drifts across the floor; a huge, blue, homemade paper bag slumps under its own weight at a far end of the gallery. Odd smears and patches of colour adhere badly to the cellophane and clingfilm. She also adulterates the materials with lipstick, glitter hairspray and baby oil. It could be very slight, but somehow the effect stays with me and is rather magical, like the sounds in Wynne's work.

Elsewhere, a life-sized figure of the theosophist Madame Blavatsky appears to levitate between two chairs, in a work by Goshka Macuga, held aloft by the power of thought alone. Nearby, she has a very large desk littered with expensively rebound art books. Macuga's work is dense with references, and it all takes a lot of mental unpacking.

Macuga is serious, in a good way. So, too, are Pablo Bronstein's architectural drawings, which at first sight could hang in some dusty corner of a museum. In sometimes wormy old frames, and aged with tea stains, the drawings depict architectural eccentricities – Sir Christopher Wren's Temple Bar, the piazzas of Turin, the ruins of the Bastille – but something isn't quite right. Bits of horrible 1980s postmodern architecture intrude, and diminutive figures are dwarfed by their surroundings. There is something genuinely haunting about Bronstein's work. What his drawings are haunted by is history. The present and the past collide.

A similar collision of styles and periods is attempted by Ged Quinn, whose faux 18th-century landscapes are populated by inconsistencies: an Icarus falls from the sky who turns out to be Antonin Artaud. Quinn also furtively puts spraypainted swastikas and hammer-and-sickles on the flanks of a distant flock of sheep. Baaah. It's bad, and not in a good way. All that conspicuous skill, spent in the service of a sub-Jake and Dinos Chapman gag.

I much prefer Sigrid Holmwood's reworked 19th-century Nordic genre paintings, rendered in eye-biting fluorescent colour. Holmwood's palette is weird. She grinds her own paints, and puts hokey images of a lost rural and domestic life through the mill. There are pipe-puffing women, sturdy peasants, homely and bucolic scenes. It all flares, incomprehensibly.

Just as you think there's a theme to the show, it gets lost. Here come some tacky cartoonish figures pierced by fluorescent light tubes; there's a painting of Che Guevera, but it turns out to be Cher. It's a bit grim when the best thing one can think of some of the painters is that this one has been looking at Luc Tuymans, that one at the Leipzig school, another at too many comics. And then one comes across a lovely woven rug or bedspread, flopped and rumpled on the floor. Look closely and it's a tapestry, and some of the undulations and shadows are actually woven into the fabric's geometric design. Real shadows and woven, pixelated shadows. This is by Rupert Norfolk. He also provides us with a broken dry-stone wall. Look closely and one discovers that each stone is symmetrical – and that he has carved half of each stone to mirror its uncut side. The effect of Norfolk's work is to slow you down. But for what? I think he is trying to create a feeling of the uncanny. There's something not quite right about the world, or indeed this show.

There's a lot of heads, busts and portraits. One of Steve Claydon's works is a bust morphed from three political figures, but it is impossible to say who. Oswald Mosley? Stalin? Lloyd George? I mistook it for a head of writer Peter Ackroyd, and passed on. Daniel Silver sets his human and humanoid heads on biomorphic lumps of plaster, on wonky columns and fanciful plinths, which are often more interesting than the heads themselves. Jonathan Baldock's carnivalesque, highly detailed heads are sculpted from homemade play-dough, to which he adds synthetic hair and doll's eyes. As craft they're really good. As art they are negligible.

Saatchi's shows are not to be taken entirely seriously, and he has always shown as many duds as worthwhile discoveries – and it must be said that Saatchi himself has discovered very little. I wouldn't rely on his shows to tell me what was the best in new art, even if he has great spaces in which to show it. Nor can one identify any shared direction, a flavour, a style or a zeitgeist. The spirit of the age is elsewhere. Or maybe there just isn't one. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 05 2010

Newspeak: British Art Now

Saatchi Gallery, London

The title is taken from George Orwell's dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four, in which Newspeak is "the only language in the world whose vocabulary is getting smaller every year". There are times – the annual Turner prize ritual being one – when one feels that the vocabulary of contemporary art is suffering from a similar kind of imaginative shrinkage. But surely the curators of this show – nothing less that Charles Saatchi's canonisation of a new generation of young artists – cannot mean to be acknowledging that, can they?

Of course not. That would be properly radical. Instead, the press release assures us that "this exhibition turns that Orwellian vision on its head, showing that the range of visual languages being exploited and invented by these new artists is, in fact, expanding and multiplying." Ho hum.

What we have here is a hotchpotch – of styles, approaches and strategies, most of which are attempting not just to reinvent, revitalise, or reference the tired language of conceptualism, but also to crawl out from under the long shadow cast by Saatchi's previously anointed generation, the YBAs. It's a hard job, but somebody's got to do it.

In general, the work in Newspeak runs the gamut from the underwhelming to the overambitious, but there are pieces here that intrigue and one or two instances of inspired brilliance. Painting, after a fashion, is back. Likewise sculpture – as opposed to assemblage, though that, too, is represented here. Ironically, the most well-known artist is Eugenie Scrase, the poster girl for the new Saatchi generation following her stealing – in more ways than one – of the first prize on a recent reality-TV talent show, School of Saatchi. Her reward is to be included here and the winning work, a found object consisting of a segment of tree trunk impaled on a fence, seamlessly takes its place in an upper gallery, neatly avoiding the issue raised in the TV series of whether she is a Duchampian magpie or a total chancer. Or indeed both. Or neither. (These questions reverberate throughout the show, but then again they have reverberated throughout the past few decades of conceptual art made for a ruthlessly market-driven gallery scene.)

The most immediately striking work here is also the most lazy: Scott King's Pink Cher, a dazzlingly bright screen-print of the singer as the revolutionary that might pass as a subversive comment on the commodification of radical politics in the celebrity age if it were part of an undergraduate show, but I doubt it. Pink Cher manages to reference Warhol and Warhol-referencer-in-chief Gavin Turk, and its meta-message may be that art is disappearing up its own self-referential backside, but we knew that already.

More thought-provoking, witty and multi-layered are Ged Quinn's ultra-allegorical landscapes, which are painted in the Romantic style but contain all manner of strange references from recent history. In The Fall, the winged figure of Antonin Artaud, creator of the Theatre of Cruelty, falls from the sky like Lucifer in Paradise Lost towards a ramshackle shed in a bucolic landscape originally painted by Claude Lorrain. The shed is Thomas Edison's first purpose-built film studio and it is decorated by Artaud's crazed drawings. Quinn ransacks history and myth for his wonderfully realised paintings, fusing conspiracy theory, strange cults and Nazi archaeology against a backdrop of classical painting. I found myself spending more time in front of one of his works than I did traversing whole rooms elsewhere in this vast space.

I also liked Phoebe Unwin's strange figurative paintings, which suggest abstract states of mind, reveries, accidents. In one, a lounging man's sunglasses fall from his face, and it is the moment of the falling she evokes, omitting his head altogether for a the repeated motif of the floating spectacles. A small dark painting called Nightlife is, she says in the catalogue, of "no one in particular"; it possesses that intimate everyman quality of an Edward Hopper portrait, if Hopper's imagination had been invaded by the spirit of Philip Guston. Intimate and translucent, there is a lightness of touch and a deft capturing of mood in Unwin's work that sets her apart.

Of the other painters, Hurvin Anderson's big canvases are evocative and deploy colour and space in a way that recalls Peter Doig. Untitled (Black Street) is as monochrome and ominous as the name suggests; elsewhere his figures seem stranded in a world of abstract shapes, hinted-at landscapes painted in muted colours and semi-tones. Sigrid Holmwood, on the other hand, dazzles the eye with her acid oranges, reds and yellows, bringing a psychedelic vision to bear on the Swedish masterpieces she has reimagined. The result is mesmerising and disorienting in its subversion of art history and techniques.

Upstairs, Lynette Yiadom Boakye, a writer as well as a painter, creates big dark canvases filled with oddly familiar figures that possess a mysterious narrative quality only hinted at in titles like Diplomacy II, Grammy and Ambassador. Her composite characters often seem to be posing for the camera at a public event. Here, staged portraiture is upended and you are left wondering, as is often the case with photographs, what is happening beyond the frame.

One cannot help but wonder at shows like this what will become the signature work – the Dead Dad or Myra of the Newspeak generation. That tainted honour might fall to Goshka Macuga's Madame Blavatsky or littlewhitehead's It Happened in the Corner. The first is a sculpture of the famous 19th-century aristocrat and theosophist suspended between two chairs, as if levitating in a hypnotic trance. It speaks of death, mysticism and illusion, not to mention charlatanism, and is compelling perhaps because we live in a supposedly post-rational age where the pseudo-spiritual blatherings of Blavatsky and her followers retain an attraction for the impressionable and the anti-scientific. It also seems oddly holy.

It Happened in the Corner, though, is anything but. The piece is very much of its time: blackly humorous, slightly threatening and dripping with references from the art world – the similarly unsettling realist figurative sculptures of Duane Hanson – and the real world – hoodies, the homeless, street gangs. Based in Glasgow, littlewhitehead are a collective who summon up our collective fears. This sculpture is a group of hooded figures clustered, their backs to the viewer, in a corner of the gallery. The closer you come to the work, the more ominous and unsettling it becomes.

Here, the viewer feels like a bystander who happens on a violent incident, is drawn to it, but not enough to risk his or her own safety by interfering. The work gives us licence to stand and stare with impunity. It is hard, in every sense of the word. But it is also still and focused compared to the visual cacophony that makes such extravagant claims on our interest elsewhere in this big, brash, if sometimes quietly surprising, exhibition. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 12 2010

Mr Saatchi's Opus

Weighing in at 35kg, is The History of the Saatchi Gallery a tome for the discerning art lover or just an oversize paperweight? Adrian Searle finds out ...

February 02 2010

Holy cow

Saatchi Gallery, London

The Empire Strikes Back is a wet punch. One might expect Charles Saatchi to show just the sorts of things that are presented: a stuffed camel in a suitcase, a taxidermied dog morphing with a furry vacuum cleaner, photographs of veiled women whose burkas turn out to be pixelated with tiny porn shots, yet more of Subodh Gupta's over-familiar sculptures made from cooking utensils, a black medical cot piled high with tarry mattresses that breathe wheezily to the power of ­compressed air. There are painted gags about Jasper Johns, dystopian jokes about technology, including a rattling old Xerox machine with half its ­gubbins missing, and an army of figures made from old floor lamps, neon tubes, ­discarded bits of plumbing. I see a GCSE-level art project coming on.

This isn't to say that The Empire Strikes Back is all bad. Some pieces are worse than bad, others just ­obvious. A speech by Gandhi spelled out in bones adds nothing to any argument. It just took a long time to make. T ­Venkanna's reworked ­versions of Douanier ­Rousseau are fun and sexy, and so is ­Chitra Ganesh's cartoon of a liberated Indian ­superwoman. Rashid Rana's ­pixelated view of an ­endless sea of ­rubbish is queasily beautiful, and – best of all – Yamini Nayar's photographs of half-abandoned rooms take us somewhere strange and oddly threatening.

A lot of the work looks ­exoticised for the gallery, the artists playing up their post-colonial otherness as a gimmick, rather than making art of substance. This exhibition gives us no clearer view of the art of a subcontinent than did a recent Serpentine gallery exhibition. There's also no film or video – areas where some of the best work is made.

Rating: 2/5 © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

January 12 2010

Dark matter

Richard Wilson's spectacular reservoir of recycled engine oil, first created in 1987, finds a new home at the new Saatchi Gallery in Chelsea

November 14 2009

'Anyone can be Rembrandt'

Since he made his name in the early 90s, Damien Hirst has been less an artist than head of a multinational. In the process, he's earned an absolute fortune, if not critical respect. But why should he care?

Damien Hirst stares into his portrait of a skull. This is the new Damien Hirst – Hirst the solitary painter rather than Hirst the art world's flamboyant marketing magician. He has painted these pictures with his own hands, rather than employed minions to produce work under his name, as he has done in the past. But, he says, this is also the old Hirst. After all, like most artists, he started out painting rather than conceptualising and mass-producing. "I gave up painting by 16," he says. "I secretly thought I would have been Rembrandt by then."

I give him a look. But Rembrandt was a genius?

He shakes his head. "No, I don't believe in genius. I believe in freedom. I think anyone can do it. Anyone can be like Rembrandt."

Hirst is a master of the potty soundbite. I wait for a smile or wink, but it doesn't come. Instead, he gets into his philosophical stride. "Picasso, Michelangelo, possibly, might be verging on genius, but I don't think a painter like Rembrandt is a genius. It's about freedom and guts. It's about looking. It can be learned. That's the great thing about art. Anybody can do it if you just believe. With practice, you can make great paintings."

How far away does Hirst think he is from producing a Rembrandt? "A long way. But then again, there's no need for that sort of thing today." He's got a touch of the Arthur Daleys about him – the chutzpah, the patter, the self-belief.

It's mid-October and Hirst is giving me a guided tour of his upcoming exhibition at the Wallace Collection in London. Being Hirst, it's bound to be controversial. For starters, he's paid £250,000 of his own money to have his work hung here against the same striped blue silk wallpaper beloved by Marie Antoinette. What's more, he's pitting himself against the likes of Rembrandt and Titian hanging in neighbouring rooms. And then there are the paintings themselves. For two years, he has painted alone in his garden shed in Devon. He didn't show them to anybody, didn't think they were any cop, discarded them one by one, until he finally came up with some he liked. But as he leads me round the exhibition, I'm not quite sure how to react. He's  right when he says he's a long way from Rembrandt. Perhaps a little further than he thinks. I say they're spooky – it's the best I can come up with by way of a compliment. At times, they seem more like illustrated CVs than paintings. All the traditional Hirst signifiers are there – skulls and sharks, dots and butterflies, crude nods to his hero Francis Bacon by way of spidery white lines, and the usual references to death and decay. There's certainly no mistaking who these paintings are by.

Hirst has been battling with painting for years. He's always wanted to do it, but could never quite face up to it or get down to it. "The spot paintings and spin paintings were trying to find mechanical ways to make paintings," he says. "And I just got to a point where I thought I can't avoid it any longer." Technically, they might have been paintings, but he felt he wasn't getting down and dirty with his oils and his soul, like a true artist should.

Damien Hirst remains the figurehead of Britart, the movement of British artists whose work was bought and championed by Charles Saatchi in the 90s. In 1992, he first came to prominence at a Young British Artists show at Saatchi's old gallery on Boundary Road in St John's Wood, London. The Physical Impossibility Of Death In The Mind Of Something Living, a shark in formaldehyde in a vitrine, became Britart's signature image.

Hirst was the star of Saatchi's Sensation show at the Royal Academy in 1997, an event that was more of a coronation than an exhibition for the new generation of British artists. Post-Sensation, Hirst and his contemporaries (the Chapman brothers, Sarah Lucas, Tracey Emin, Marc QuinnMarcus Harvey, et al) became the new punk establishment. Britart was bursting with enfants terribles, and Hirst seemed the most terrible of them all. It wasn't simply the pickled cows and sharks; it was the swagger, the swearing, the rock'n'roll attitude. He even wore tinted glasses like Bono. He became as well known for his partying and his pill-popping as he did for his art. Then he discovered cocaine and became even louder. A night out for the Britpack was not really a night out until Hirst had taken down his trousers and waggled his willy in public.

The funny thing is, Hirst was never meant to be the poster boy for the movement. He had always thought of himself as the back-room boy – more an enabler than an artist. In 1988, while a student at Goldsmiths, he curated an exhibition of his contemporaries' work called Freeze. Another irony is that the young Hirst had been rather conventional – not nearly as wild as he wanted to be. He was born into a working-class family and grew up in Leeds. His parents divorced when he was 12, and his mother, Mary, who worked for the Citizens Advice bureau, brought him up with a fierce sense of the right and proper. The true punk at his school was Marcus Harvey, who went on to create the scandal of Sensation with his portrait of the child killer Myra Hindley. Hirst adored Harvey, who was two years older. "I wanted to be like him. He was just mental. He wore a kilt and had a tiny blue Hitler moustache on his chest. I remember being incredibly jealous because my mum would cut up anything I went out in that was bad. She'd just say get back in the house. My mum made Never Mind The Bollocks into a plant pot – she put it on the gas, with a rock in the middle, and it just went whooosh! – because it said bollocks." Today, she lives next door to Hirst and his family in Devon.

He was not an academic boy, only just squeezing into sixth form, where he did two A-levels and ended up with an E in art. He was initially refused entry to Leeds College of Art & Design, but eventually got a place. He was later turned down by St Martins, before studying at Goldsmiths. When he first moved to London, Hirst worked on a building site for two years.

He was 23 when he curated the Goldsmiths show. It featured some of his own work, but his cluster of painted boxes went pretty much unnoticed. In 1991, he got his first solo exhibition – In And Out Of Love featured rooms with live butterflies, hatching, flying and dying, with dead specimens stuck on canvases. From early on, his curating skills were evident in his work – the labelling, the titles, the layout, the display cabinets. To an extent, the presentation was the art.

In the late 90s, he became Britain's own mini-Warhol, embracing celebrity, mass manufacture – and money. No British artist seemed so obsessed by the relationship between money, art and value. For Hirst, concept was all. If he'd had the idea (even if others claimed to have had it before, as they often did), that was enough. He loved the notion that he could attach his name to work he had not laid a finger on, claim it as his own and make millions. It was funny, ludicrous and hugely profitable.

Things reached their apotheosis (or nadir, depending on your perspective) in 2007, with For The Love Of God, a human skull, recreated in platinum and adorned with 8,601 diamonds, that cost an estimated £14m to produce. Again, Hirst's timing was perfect, the symbolism acute – after two decades in which art had become the supreme commodity, money was now also the subject of art. There was nothing left to say. The work sold for an estimated $100m, although it later emerged that the consortium that had bought it included Hirst and his dealer's gallery, White Cube.

Earlier this year, he ditched the gallery system altogether and sold a load of work at a massive Sotheby's auction that raised a reported £111m. He seems to be trying to create a new business model for the art world. Hirst thinks it's about time his dealer, Jay Jopling, was given a tougher ride by artists. "He always said I've got your best interests at heart, but he doesn't really. It's like he's got a harem, and I've got to be monogamous, and you just go, 'Fuck that' after a while." (Hirst has always liked his swear words.)

It was after the diamond skull that Hirst retreated to his shed. And it was after the auction that he realised paintings would be the next thing he exhibited. "The auction was definitely the end of something. A brutal change for me – go out with a bang." He admits, reluctantly, that Britart is a product of Thatcherism, but insists he has no politics and says he has never voted in his life.

Hirst verges on the evangelical when it comes to money. He says that he has spent so long trying to make Sarah Lucas, his favourite contemporary British artist, appreciate the value of money and herself. To no avail. "She'd be like, 'I don't give a fuck, give me what you want' and I'd be like, 'You should sell your work for more' and she'd say, 'I don't care. I'm not interested in all that shit.' I was like Sarah in the beginning, but then I had to give a fuck at some point." He comes to a frustrated stop. "I kind of admire her for it," he adds wistfully.

He was jealous when he found out that Rachel Whiteread's work was selling for £100,000 at a time when his was going for £20,000-£30,000. "I remember telling Jay to put my work up to £100,000. And he said to me, 'But I can sell anything you make' and it dawned on me: 'It's cos you're selling it too fucking cheap.' He said, 'It's going to alienate your collectors' and I said, 'I don't care, just do it.' We didn't look back. When he sold something for £100,000, something changed – you get taken seriously by a whole new group of people and they start buying."

Isn't there a danger that the money becomes all-consuming; that the sole measure of a piece of art is what it sells for? "You just keep an eye on it. Selling out is very different from dealing with cash." What is selling out? "My business manager always says you've got to make sure you're using the cash to chase the art, not the art to chase the cash." Hirst would argue that his diamond skull is an example of cash chasing the art.

Has he ever sold out? "I think I've got very close. There was a point I could have just churned out the spot and spin paintings for ever and laughed all the way to the bank."

Was he taking the mick out of the art market? "No. You can take the piss out of art, but I don't think you can take the piss out of the art market. All markets are serious."

So why did he stop mass-producing? In the end, he says, he found it too depressing – it began reminding him of his own mortality. "With the work I was doing, I couldn't see a route to the end of my life. I was doing these sculptures, and the people who work for me have always stayed the same. Then I thought, as I get older, they're going to get older and fucking older… And then I'd be getting old and have to get young people working for me so they could lift the sculptures."

Also, the paintings were no longer relevant to him. "The spot paintings were all about immortality. They're just a total celebration of when you're twatted, when you're taking drugs, when you're under the table. In that moment, you feel you can live for ever. Then you just get to the point where you think you've got less time in front of you than behind you."

There's a story about the spot paintings, possibly apocryphal, that I love – that Hirst started selling kits to make up the paintings for tens of thousands of pounds. In other words, he was charging people a fortune for painting them themselves. Hirst grins. Of course it's true. It came about when a man said he'd like to buy a spot painting painted directly on to a wall and Hirst asked how he planned to do it. "He said, 'Oh, just make me a certificate and give me some paint and tins. So I went through it in my head and worked it out – the certificate certified ownership of the artwork, the artwork must be painted by an authorised representative and the spots are these dimensions, these colours, and the spot painting can't exist in two places at the same time. I bought my own tins, mixed the colours, put it all in a box, a brush for every tin, so you get 150 tins and 150 brushes, compass, pencil and a certificate."

He must have thought that was funny? He shakes his head. "Every time I had a new idea, I realised it had been done years ago. Sol LeWitt, Bruce Nauman, Carl Andre, Donald Judd, all the minimalists, they all had certified artworks."

Hirst was recently estimated to be worth £200m. What does he do with all his money? Well, there's his rapidly growing art collection, his many houses, his cars, his office. "I've got a lot of projects, and there's lots for charity as well." Hirst tells me which charities he supports, but he's hardly gushing about it. I can't help sensing he prefers the bad boy image and isn't overly keen to destroy it with heartwarming tales of do-gooding. But a number of his friends tell me of the times he has helped out when they've been in trouble.

He's more likely to tell you about the horrible things he's done. His friends confirm this side to him, too. Although he doesn't reckon he sold out, he did come close to destroying himself with drink and drugs, notably cocaine. He got clean only three years ago, and says for a long time he was insufferable. "The problem is, at the time I thought I was cool, but now I look back and think I was a twat." Shortly before his great friend Joe Strummer died, the musician had had enough of him. "He was going, 'Ignore him. Everybody ignore Damien. He'll go away.' I was just talking spew."

He tells me about a recent conversation with a friend. "I said, 'When I met you, I thought you were really cool' and he went, 'I thought you were a twat.' I went, 'What?!' And he said, 'I thought you were arrogant and stupid and pushy.' Lots of people say that's the impression I give off. I can't quite work out what I do – maybe I just show off – but it always surprises me. I think we're getting on like a house on fire. Maia [Norman, his partner] says it about her friends – they were intimidated by me or I was aggressive or arrogant or they don't like me. 'Who is that twat?' "

And when he was doing drink and drugs, he says, he was hideous. How? He can't remember all the details, so he turns for help to Jude Tyrrell, director of Hirst's company Science Ltd.

Tyrrell: "You were more in your face when you were on the booze and coke."

Hirst: "Yeah, you wanted to give up a few times."

Tyrrell: "No, only once."

Hirst: "Was that the knob out in Dublin?"

Tyrrell: "No, the knob with the chicken bone was fine. It was that girl's 18th birthday party. It was a posh boutique hotel and Damien was there, very drunk and abusive. It was just the kind of thing you don't want to see. Had he continued as he was, I don't think anybody could have stuck around. Also, he would have lost the art. He just wouldn't have been able to do it. He'd be staying up for two or three nights, and I'd have BBC news arrive, and I know how much that costs, and I'd be sending them away because he'd just not turned up."

Why does she think Hirst acted like this? "With everybody else, you think it's because there's shit in their lives. Damien I honestly think did it because he loves life – for purely hedonistic reasons."

And the chicken bone? That's an entirely different matter, says Hirst. "I went to a Malaysian restaurant and I had chicken, and I got a thigh bone from the chicken and kept it in my pocket and back at the hotel I put it in my foreskin, so I had a bone sticking out of the end of my cock."

Tyrell reminds Hirst, aged 44, that he has missed an important detail: "You were in a bar when you were doing it, and this American woman took offence."

Ah, yes, says Hirst, his memory clearing. "She stormed out in disgust, and next day she sued for $100,000. She claimed she'd been traumatised."

That was the last time he exposed himself in public. "I became aware that, in a room full of people and at $100,000 each, it could become very costly. We settled for 8,000 Irish punts."

How did Hirst manage to straighten himself out? "I just got sick of myself." What did his partner, Maia, make of him throughout this period? "We were both battered." She was as bad as him? "Yeah. If we hadn't been, I don't think we'd have stayed together."

Hirst and Maia have three sons. The oldest, Connor, is 14, Cassius is nine and Cyrus four. Hirst worries that their lifestyle affected Connor badly. "He's a bit quieter than the other two, and sometimes I think it's because of that."

We're looking at some white roses on a blue-black background. This is one of his favourite paintings in the exhibition. How important is it to him that the show is well reviewed? "Jay [Jopling] always seems to want to get people to be pleased, but I always say I try to ignore the good press so then I can ignore the bad. If you like the good and try to ignore the bad, you can get fucked up. But you make it for yourself at the end of the day, and that's who you've got to satisfy."

A couple of weeks later, we meet up again at Hirst's London offices, which double up as a beautiful, if unofficial, modern art gallery – a Jeff Koons silver sculpture on the ground floor, Warhol's electric chair upstairs, Hirsts galore. He is wearing different blue-tinted specs (he has some 50 pairs), the customary hoodie and trainers, and is explaining why he wasn't cut out to be a curator. "Dealing with the ego of artists is mental." Who's got the biggest ego among his British peers? "Er, me? You need a big ego to be an artist. I suppose you need a big ego to deal with the shit reviews I've been having for this show."

The Wallace show has received a real mauling; I've rarely read such scathing reviews. The paintings are described as "embarrassing", "shockingly bad", "Francis Bacon meets Adrian Mole", and Hirst labelled "a jumped-up pretender".

Did the reviews surprise him? "Well, I kind of expected them," he says, "but I suppose secretly you do hope they won't be as crap. The worst thing is, I've had phone calls from people who've treated it as a death – phoning up and asking, 'Are you OK?'" He grins. "A couple of the reviews made me laugh. [Guardian critic] Adrian Searle said, 'I failed at painting, too.' I thought that was a cracking line. He rejected me at St Martins."

Has it dented his confidence? "I've had all the confidence dented for two years in the studio, so I've looked at the work and gone through all the doubts and come out the other side. In a way, it was personal and quite aggressive. What got people's backs up most was that I was doing it in the Wallace, in the context of these great artists. But it's early days for me painting. I don't think I've arrived. I don't think I'm as great as they are. These are the first paintings I'm satisfied with… But the Wallace are well happy. The viewing figures are through the roof, sales in the shop are massive."

Some critics have suggested that the exhibition is a joke, that he has deliberately produced bad paintings, knowing that they'll still sell for huge sums. "Maybe it is… who knows? There's an element of that in everything I do. Someone once said to me, 'You could sign a dog shit and sell it' and I said, 'Why would I?' And then you think, if you did, it would be art. Manzoni blew up a balloon and called it Artist's Breath and sold it. And people go, 'Are you taking the piss, or is it for real?'"

He says there's nothing more boring than an artist wanting to be taken seriously, and it's true there is a playfulness to most of Hirst's work, but the bottom line is the paintings are for real; he does want them to be taken seriously. "I didn't think, right, I'm going to make paintings now and I don't give a fuck what they look like because we're going to make loads of money. That's not what they're about. They've got to be good."

Has he learned anything from the reviews? "No. I like what Warhol said: you don't read them, you weigh them." Perhaps he couldn't win, he adds. "It's the hallowed area of painting. The same guys who are saying to me these are shit are the guys who've said you're crap because you can't paint. So you paint and they say you're crap now you're trying to paint."

That's not strictly true. Many of those who were most damning about this show loved his earlier work, particularly the dissected cows and pickled sharks. The concept was so fresh, the lines so clean, the appearance so startling. I ask where he got the ideas from. "School. Even then I was doing that sort of stuff in art with frogs. And there were skulls and pine cones and bits of bone. It was like a nature table with things in formaldehyde. So we'd always draw from that."

He talks about the inspiration for Mother And Child Divided. "It was about my mum and sister, who had fallen out at the time. It was a funny take on that."

But this is all in the past, he says. The future, for him, is painting. He shows me the work that will form his next exhibition, Nothing Matters, opening later this month at the White Cube. There are more skulls and sharks and dots, but the colours are brighter – reds and greens. He's also introduced a few new motifs: deckchairs, windows, splattered crows.

Does he think this show will get better reviews? "I think it'll be another kicking," he says. "It's only a few weeks later and it's similar stuff, so they're just going to say, 'He won't go away!'"

And, he says, they'll be right. "The paintings are going to get better and better and better, and they're not going to go away. There's no way back for me. I've just got to barrel on through. If you want to make it easy for yourself, you can say there's a whole history of great artists who've been slagged off, so you can just embrace that, can't you?"

Hirst tells me he watched a documentary about Francis Bacon the other night. "I loved the way he talked about the Popes. He said they were failed paintings. I loved that. He said he tried to combine the Eisenstein shot of the nanny screaming with the Velásquez painting, and it was a disaster. He said, 'I don't even know why I tried.' I thought what a great thing to say – his greatest paintings, to talk them down like they're shit. That way, no one can slag 'em off." He pauses. "I should have done that."

But Hirst has never been one for regrets, and he chucks a final Warhol quote at me to prove the point. "Warhol said a brilliant thing. He said if anybody slags anything off, make more."

• No Love Lost, Blue Paintings, by Damien Hirst, is showing at the Wallace Collection, Manchester Square, London W1 until 24 January 2010. Nothing Matters is at the White Cube, London N1 from 25 November-30 January 2010. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2009 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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